A little of THIS and a little of THAT

Initially I started this blog as a way of sharing my experiences overseas with those that were interested...however so much has happened over the last two years, including more travelling to foreign destinations, revelations of some kind or other, and experiences I thought others could learn from that I decided to mix it all up.

I hope that somewhere you'll find something that interests you and that you'll be able to learn from.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A civillians perspective in Afghanistan

Part 1

I spent 6 months working in Afghanistan on a small base called KAF, below is my experience and life on camp from a civillian's perspective. It is my hope that those that read it will walk away with a new perspective on what is happening there. I will be posting my journal piece by piece with hopes of posting a new sections weekly or bi weekly. Enjoy.


It took me almost a year before I even applied to the Canadian Forces Personnel Support Agency for a position in Afghanistan. I weighed my options on whether it was something I would enjoy and most importantly could I leave my kids for such a long period of time and whether my husband could handle the daunting task. After weighing my options for nearly a year I decided that this was something I wanted and more importantly needed to do.

I had worked or volunteered on every military base that we had been posted to since becoming a military wife 14 years ago. I had volunteered and worked with deployed military families in both Petawawa and Edmonton and felt that it was something very near and dear to me. My husband had also been deployed several times himself. I knew what the families were going through more and more with each deployment, and felt I could offer something to them, knowledge, support, even if just a little empathy for what they were feeling at times when no one outside the military circle could understand, while at the same time supporting our troops by taking care of their families back home.

For me, it was time to go in a different direction, supporting our troops on the front line so to speak “Serving those who Serve”, that is the motto of CFPSA and Deployed Operations in Afghanistan. I wanted to offer morale and welfare to our soldiers overseas. I didn’t know it at the time, after all we spoke only of the Canadian troops, but I would actually be providing morale to many more than just our 2500 deployed soldiers in and around KAF. We have British, Australian, New Zealand, Dutch, French, and American as well as a many other nations serving there, not to mention the many civilian organizations that provide services on camp. All of which use our services, some more than others.

Coming here provided me with the independence I so needed and couldn’t have otherwise with being a mom for the past 12 years. I love my kids just as much or more than any other mom, after all they made me grow up, made me look at things from a different light. Before Robbie, my oldest, I was just a teenager without a care in the world. I was skipping school, and didn’t care about my grades, I didn’t know where I was going in life, or what I wanted to be, and if I did I wasn’t doing anything to help myself get there. That all changed when I found out he was on the way. All of sudden I knew I wanted to be something better. I wanted to be something he would be proud of when he grew up, so he could say, no matter what, my mom made the best life possible for me. With Anthony he provided me with a sense of calm. Up until him, I had been temperamental and impatient. He was a less than easy child to deal with and I had to learn quick to use other ways of dealing with my frustrations other than getting angry or being short tempered. I had to use ration and reason.

This was just another opportunity to better myself. It’s as if I somehow I knew that I was capable of doing so much more, and doing something good, and better in my life. At the same time, I’m travelling, and seeing things I never thought I would, and could only hope that one day my children can see the same things that I see each and every day here, that and more. I’ve been able to see a different part of the world. I can now say that the moon shines on the other side of the world, I can see the big dipper in the sky no matter where I am, and trees do still grow in the desert, yes they may be covered from top to bottom with dust, but they do still grow here.

After finally applying for the position with CFPSA I waited another five months before I even got a call for an interview, I had actually forgotten that I had applied. The first phone call was short, just a call to ask if I was still interested in the position, and to let me know of my telephone interview date, and advise me that I would have to recertify for my first aid and CPR, and get a passport, all this before I even knew if I would be selected to go overseas. Was I still interested? Ummmmm yes, I guess I was still interested. Honestly by this point I didn’t think I had a chance, I thought my resume had been put to the side. Let’s toot my own horn a little here; I had the perfect resume for the job. I had worked with military families before and soldiers, I had worked with deployment support services twice before, and I had worked Tim Horton’s before; on a base at that. I had everything going for me, so why wouldn’t they have called me. I was perfect for the job.

A couple weeks later I got my telephone interview. I remember answering some questions so well, and then got stumped on another, I was brutally honest with one of my interview questions, and thought that I had just put the last nail in my casket. When I received a phone call a couple days later and was invited to go to Kingston, I was speechless. Out of Thousands of applicants, I had been one of one hundred and ten people that would be going to the almost two week Training session in Kingston.


Kingston almost never happened for me. A few days prior to leaving, I had fell down the stairs and rolled my ankle. It was the worst roll I had ever had. I remember how I felt hearing a small crack, and seeing my foot underneath my leg. As much as it hurt, I couldn’t feel a thing, try and figure that out. I cried almost as hard as I cried in my whole life. Once the initial pain settled I realized how hard it was to walk on my foot. I decided to lay low for a couple days, not do anything, keep my foot on ice and leg up, cause I knew deep down part of what I was in for the next little bit. It was two days prior and I had a big decision on my plate; go to Kingston and risk ruining my ankle further, or call Ottawa and thank them for the offer but give up my spot, and possibly my only chance of ever being able to go again. My husband pushed hard for the ladder option, he himself wasn’t ready for me to go, wasn’t ready for me to go overseas for a multitude of reasons. I could walk on my foot though, although with a lot of pain, but I went anyway. By the end of the second day, my ankle had swollen up to the size of a small melon again, and PE day was torture. I didn’t want to opt out of PE for risk of being sent home for not being able to complete the training or looking as if I was trying to get out a portion of the training. It was only weeks before leaving for Afghanistan that my foot had completely healed. Now my feet were in for a whole new set of pain.

Upon landing, half of us have met at the Ottawa airport waiting for the buses to pick us up and drive us up to Kingston. We’re all at the meeting spot, the designated meeting spot, and we know who we are, or at least the purpose of why we’re all here. Some of us have landed quite early, two hours, some more. We’re all talking; getting to know one another, some of us knew each other from before, having applied with one another, or having met along the way. We played cards, talked some more, and waited. The most asked question was what position did you apply for? I don’t think it was at this point that we realized that we were in fact going to be in a sense each other’s opponent. That while we would need each other to get through training, and would need to work together that half the people applying for some of the positions would not be chosen to go overseas.

We later found out that there were 110 people selected to go on our training course, and out of those 110, not much more than half would be selected for Rotation 5 in Afghanistan, and Mirage.

We were like family almost at once, a true testament to what was to come in KAF. I had met up with Carrie at our First Aid and CPR course, both of us had introduced ourselves as having to take the course as a prerequisite for a position overseas. We had met up with another girl on the plane, and from there on we were meeting people almost every step of the way.

I can’t say much of what went on during training as that would defeat the purpose to some of those reading this that may apply one day the element of surprise of what would be to come. I will say though, expect to be busy, expect the least, and expect to work hard. Listen to what your trainers tell you, don’t take nothing of what they say for granted, because they are giving you the cold hard truth. If they say you inevitably work 18 hours a day, 7 days a week with no break, then expect to work 18 hours a day, 7 days a week with no break. If you have a question, ask, they even put a little notebook at the front of the class so you can anonymously write question you may otherwise feel uncomfortable asking. If you are selected and you leave with a sense of feeling unprepared that is on you.

When we made it to Kingston we were placed in groups in which we had to work on activities together. I almost felt like I was a kid again. Every night events were organized by one of the groups. We played BINGO, went on scavenger hunts, and had relays and games. We even got to do a walking tour of Kingston, and had mandatory PE every second day, no matter what your skill level was, you were expected to be there and try. Everything we did, from the activities we participated in, our time spent at the mess, and the lectures we attended were all carefully watched and analyzed.

We were roomed with anywhere from five to seven other people, 4 bunk beds to a room to simulate what it would be like overseas sharing a tent with seven other people beside you. You quickly learned about some people’s personalities, and it even became quite apparent that some of the people wouldn’t be selected to go overseas. There were people there, who were still quite young, age wise and in their maturity, they didn’t get along with the other selectees, and were late for lectures, or fell asleep during the lectures. The one piece of advice my husband said to me before I left besides smile and be yourself was “you’re in a military style program now, if you feel tired, go to back of the room and stand up, anything to stop yourself from falling asleep”. A piece of advice I took nearly every day. Between standing at the back of the room, soda, which I hardly drank, coffee, which I couldn’t stand the taste of and candy, chocolate and other sugar and carb filled goodies were my best friend for keeping me perky and awake.

Every day we sat in different seats, based on shoe size, birthday, or age, always beside someone different during our very long and never ending PowerPoint presentations. From early morning to late night, we were lectured on military topics ranging from hostage situations to Mine awareness, cultural awareness of our host nation, and that of Afghanistan, past rotations experiences, and deployment stress.

During meals, we were encouraged to sit with the soldiers at the mess; now eating at the DFAC here, it’s no wonder why they (the training staff) encourage socialization among the soldiers; you sit with thousands of troop’s everyday for every meal.

I wish I could say that Kingston truly prepared me for everything I was going to face here. In some ways it did, but not all the training in the world can prepare you for some of the things one could experience in such a mission. I was prepared for the line-ups at the phone, although the only line up I encountered really was on Mother’s Day. I called home only once a week, and usually it was only to my husband and kids since you only get five minutes a day. Calling home less frequently allows time to accumulate on your phone card, and most of the time you’re too tired to sit on the phone and have a real conversation, I mostly emailed home using the wireless connection and the laptop I bought before leaving. The mess food prepared me for the food here, tasteless most days, overcooked others, and once in a while you get a nice surprise. The shower situation is the same, sometimes you get hot water, others you don’t, and you’re almost always showering with people around you, your bare ass touching the cold shower stall behind you, there’s no forgetting your crocs or flip flops here. You walk everywhere, but certainly not as much as training, and not exaggerated as we were told it would be, but it certainly did prepare us for the worst case scenario. It was easier for retail attendants, who worked mostly somewhere on the boardwalk, it was the travel co-ordinators who would have a brutal 15-20 minute walk to and from work every day. I realize that 15-20 minutes may not seem like a lot, but when you add in that temperatures can rise close to 50 degrees Celsius, stepping out of your air conditioned tent where the temperature is kept at a cool 22 degrees is a task.

The one thing training did not prepare us for is the noise. Our tent lines are right on the airfield, so the noise from the airplanes and helicopters is constant. It’s not like air techs and pilots work 9-5, they work all hours of the day and night, taking off for missions, coming back from missions, etc, the airfield and that of the ranges. Some nights you hear the constant gun fire with the soldiers perfecting their skills at night. It is something you get accustomed to though, and after awhile it becomes your bedtime lullaby. It is nights when all is quiet, which are few and far in between that the dead silence keeps you awake.

Training had been tough, constantly on toes about what was next, and what the next thing that would be thrown at us out of nowhere, just because there was a blank space on our carefully colour coded schedule didn’t mean there was free time to be had, it just meant they (the trainers) didn’t want you to know what was coming. Our last night in Kingston was a night we could finally just let loose and not worry. It was a day of celebration, when we were finally finished the course and could celebrate being the last ones from the selection process, the ones that made it through ten days, the ones who didn’t get sent back home, and the ones who still had a chance of going overseas. We celebrated with a dinner, and drinks, all we wanted to drink without being scrutinized, another thing we had to get use to. Mirage and KAF had a no drink policy, we had beer calls once a month with a two beer limit only. Being caught with alcohol, or any form of it, including the liquor filled chocolates was an automatic plane ride home at your cost. Our night ended with lots of dancing, more alcohol, pool, and a late bedtime for most.

The next few days that were to follow were a couple of the hardest from the selection process, and I had some pretty tough days, days where I wanted to hit people cause they were so unbearable, days when I wanted to call home but couldn’t because we were so busy, and days when my feet hurt so bad and were blistered so bad from all the walking. It was the call you were waiting for. We had four days between training and when final decisions would be made before we found out whether we got our offer, “here is the date we need you, at this camp, are you still interested?” No negotiations, no what ifs. We had started a group on Facebook to keep in touch with each other and as soon as someone would get their call, offer or not, they would write on the wall. By afternoon I still hadn’t gotten my call, and on msn, speaking with Carrie and Tamara (another girl from my area), neither of them had got their call either. We spent the day on messenger waiting together in anticipation. It wasn’t until early evening, around 4:00 or 5:00 that I got my call from Chantal, and was offered KAF, leaving the last day of February, of the Leap year, 2008. I was ecstatic, but disappointed because it was still so far away, another four months till I left. Carrie and Tamara’s call was unfortunately not filled with happy news as mine was; their journey had ended in Kingston, while mine was now just beginning.